Festivals, O Dia de Reis - Epiphany in Portugal, 6th January

O Dia de Reis – Epiphany in Portugal, 6th January


O Dia de Reis (King’s Day) is the Portuguese name for Epiphany and celebrates the arrival of the Three Kings at the stable where Jesus was born, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. In the past it was believed that Christmas presents were delivered by the Three Kings, but recently Father Christmas has taken over that role. However, on the night of 5th January it is still common for children to leave their shoes by the window or door with straw and carrots in them to feed the horses of the Magi who will visit during the night. In return sweets and cakes are left in the shoes as presents for the children. The Dia de Reis festival marks the end of Christmas and many families have a traditional meal similar to the Christmas Eve consoada, including the essential bolo rei (king cake). The next day all the Christmas decorations are taken down.

Bolo rei

During the period between New Year’s Day and Epiphany it is common to find groups of people in rural areas singing traditional New Year carols known as Janeiras and Cantares dos Reis, accompanied by traditional instruments. (The Cantares dos Reis are similar to the Janeiras, but they relate to the story of the Three Kings and are only sung on 5th and 6th January.) It is reminiscent of the British tradition of carol singing, with the groups going from house to house in the village singing songs announcing the birth of Jesus and wishing the residents a happy new year, or even sometimes making fun of them. In return they are given food, drink, sweets or money. In some towns and villages people dress up as Biblical characters and re-enact the story of the Magi through the streets, often followed by music, food and wine, as in the Dia de Reis celebrations in Lagoa in 2016.

The lyrics of the Janeiras and Cantares dos Reis vary from region to region and each town or village will have its own traditions. To give you a flavour, this video clip shows a group of singers in Macedo de Cavaleiros in the Bragança district of north-east Portugal going around the neighbourhood singing Cantares dos Reis and enjoying the hospitality of the residents. While in the eastern Algarve there are musical groups known as Charolas who sing Janeiras accompanied by the distinctive sound of castanets, giving the Janeiras a very different sound to those in the north of the country.

Christmas in Portugal, Festivals

Christmas in Portugal

Christmas lights Carvoeiro
Christmas lights, Carvoeiro

Until recently Christmas in Portugal was celebrated more modestly than in the UK and USA, but it is fair to say that it is becoming more commercial. Pai Natal (Father Christmas) has insinuated his way into what has always been a religious festival and Christmas lights and Christmas trees can be seen in the streets and in shops, etc from early December. However, many families, particularly in rural areas, still maintain many of the traditions, particularly when it comes to food.

The Christmas Eve dinner

The main Christmas meal, known as the consoada, is eaten on the evening of Christmas Eve. Most shops and restaurants close early on Christmas Eve, so that the family can celebrate together. The consoada usually consists of a main course of cod served with boiled potatoes and a type of cabbage or green beans, although in the north of the country (the Minho, Douro and Trás os Montes regions)  they eat boiled octopus with rice.

Dried and salted cod in readiness for the consoada

In addition, there will be a huge variety of desserts, cakes and biscuits prepared, such as arroz doce (rice pudding), aletria (similar to arroz doce, but made with angel hair pasta instead of rice), azevias (pastry stuffed with a sweet mixture made of sweet potatoes or chickpeas and ground almonds), broas de mel (a soft biscuit/cake flavoured with spices and honey), rabanadas (a type of French toast), salame de chocolate (a chocolate and biscuit log) and sonhos (a type of doughnut). Most of these contain or are sprinkled with cinnamon, the Portuguese spice of Christmas.

However, the pièce de résistance is the bolo rei (king cake), which is a sweet bread filled with dried fruit and nuts, with crystallized fruits on the top and baked in the shape of a crown. Traditionally the cake is cooked with a fava bean and a small trinket inside and the person who gets the slice with the bean has to bake or buy the cake next year (shop-bought bolo reis don’t usually include the bean or the trinket). There is also an alternative cake called bolo rainha (queen cake) which has nuts (almonds, hazelnuts, pine nuts and walnuts) on the top instead of the crystallised fruit.

Needless to say these sweet treats will be served with a glass or two of port or vinho quente (mulled wine). In some regions tradition dictates that the table should not be cleared after the consoada; some say that it is out of respect for members of the family who have died and others believe that the food should be left for the Baby Jesus.

Midnight mass

After dinner many families attend midnight mass, which is known as the ‘Missa do Galo’ (Mass of the Cockerel), so named as the only time that the cockerel crowed at midnight was on the night Jesus was born. All churches, town and village squares and most family homes have a presépio (nativity scene) on display, but the figure of Jesus is not added to the manger until after midnight mass.


Nativity scene, Carvoeiro

Nativity scene Alvor

Nativity scene, Igreja do Divino Salvador, Alvor


Traditionally children left shoes by the fireplace for Menino Jesus (Baby Jesus) to leave a small present and they wouldn’t get the present until the figure of Jesus had been added to the nativity scene. Nowadays they still leave shoes by the fireplace or under the Christmas tree, but they expect Father Christmas (who, they are told, is helped by the Baby Jesus) to leave something more substantial than a small present. Some adults open their presents on Christmas Eve, whereas many less religious people open them on Christmas Day along with the children.

Christmas Day

Christmas Day is a more relaxed day than Christmas Eve. It is a public holiday and most shops and restaurants will be closed, although some restaurants in tourist areas open to serve Christmas dinner (it is advisable to book a table in advance). A popular meal eaten in Portuguese homes on this day has the wonderful name of roupas velhas (old clothes) and is a mixture of all the leftover savoury food from the previous evening. Some people will have a roast turkey on this day or another type of meat depending on the region. In Armação de Pêra on the Algarve the Holiday Inn organizes a Santa Swim to raise money for charity, which is a good way of burning off some of the calories gained on the previous evening!


Christmas Day Santa Swim, Armação de Pêra

The 26th December is not celebrated and is a normal working day.

A Todos um Bom Natal

The Christmas song A Todos um Bom Natal is Portugal’s answer to ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’. It is often sung by children because the chorus is very simple: A todos um bom Natal/A todos um bom Natal./Que seja um bom Natal/Para todos nós./Que seja um bom Natal/Para todos nós. (A good Christmas to everyone/A good Christmas to everyone./Let it be a good Christmas/For all of us./Let it be a good Christmas/For all of us.)

Feliz Natal!

Feast of the Immaculate Conception, 8th December, Festivals

Feast of the Immaculate Conception, 8th December

Igreja do Bom Jesus do Monte, Braga
Igreja do Bom Jesus do Monte, Braga

The Feast of the Immaculate Conception (Festa da Imaculada Conceição) is a religious holiday in Portugal to celebrate the conception of the Virgin Mary, who Catholics believe was born without original sin. Nossa Senhora da Imaculada Conceição (Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception) is the patron saint of Portugal and the day is a public holiday. The main focus of the day for Catholics is to attend a Mass, but in many places there are also processions through the streets, where a statue of Mary is carried. She is also the patron saint of fishermen and in Quarteira, a coastal town in the Algarve, after being paraded through the streets of Quarteira, she is put on a boat and sailed around the Quarteira coast to bless the sea, accompanied by the boats of the local fishermen.

Banks, post offices and other public services are closed on this day (this includes some museums) and public transport runs to a reduced timetable. However, large shopping centres and shops in tourist areas should be open as usual. Churches will be closed to tourists while Mass is taking place.

Festivals, The St Martin’s Day magusto, 11th November

The St Martin’s Day magusto, 11th November

Chestnut vendor Lisbon
Chestnut vendor, Lisbon

St Martin’s Day (Dia de São Martinho) is an autumn festival which coincides with the ripening of the chestnuts and the production of the new wine. St Martin was a soldier who lived in the fourth century and in a famous legend it is said that when he was returning home one day during a terrible storm he came across a beggar who was suffering in the harsh weather. Martin took off his cape, cut it in half and gave one half to the beggar. At that moment the storm abated and the sun came out. Martin gave up the army, became a monk and later the Bishop of Tours, and was ultimately canonized. St Martin’s Day is celebrated on 11th November and often on this date the weather is unseasonably warm and sunny; this is known as o verão de São Martinho (St Martin’s summer). The Portuguese celebrate this day by having a magusto. The magusto varies from region to region, but always involves socializing while eating roast chestnuts and drinking água-pé, jeropiga or the new wine. Água-pé (literally meaning ‘foot water’, from the time when they trod the grapes to make wine) is a drink made from the mixture of grape skins, seeds and pulp (left after the juice has been extracted) with water added to it. Jeropiga is similar to agua-pé but also has a spirit added to it. In rural areas the villagers gather around a bonfire in which the chestnuts are roasted (the word ‘magusto’ is thought to come from the Latin ‘magnus’ meaning ‘big’ and ‘ustus’ meaning ‘burnt’). Some people rub the ashes from the bonfire on their faces, a custom which may date back to pagan times where it was believed that the ashes would ward off evil spirits. In more urban areas the bonfire is replaced with the ubiquitous roast-chestnut vendors. There are often stalls selling regional produce, sometimes there is a pig roast, accompanied by music and dancing.

As the Portuguese saying goes, ‘Água-pé, jeropiga, castanhas e vinho, faz-se uma boa festa pelo São Martinho.’ (equivalent to ‘Água-pé, jeropiga, chestnuts and wine, the party for St Martin is fine.’)

All Saints' Day, 1st November, Festivals

All Saints’ Day, 1st November

Porto (0731) 00001

All Saints’ Day (Dia de Todos os Santos) is a Christian festival which is observed in Portugal, as in many other Catholic countries, as a public holiday. As the name suggests, it is a feast day for all the saints, but in particular for those who don’t have a feast day at other times of the year. On this day Catholics attend a Mass and then visit the cemetery where family members are buried to lay flowers and light candles on their graves (which will have been cleaned in preparation) to guide their way into heaven, combining All Saints’ Day with All Souls’ Day (Dia de Todas as Almas) which is on 2nd November, but is not a public holiday in Portugal. The cemeteries are a hive of social activity on this day.

While Halloween is not really celebrated in Portugal, in some rural parts of the country there is a tradition reminiscent of ‘Trick or Treat’ which happens on the morning of All Saints’ Day where groups of children go from house to house in their neighbourhood asking for Pão por Deus (Bread for God’s sake). The children sing songs or recite verses such as: ‘Bolinhos e bolinhós/Para mim e para vós/Para dar aos finados/Qu’estão mortos, enterrados.’ (‘Cakes and buns/For me and for you/To give to the departed/That are dead, buried.’) They are rewarded with a piece of sweet bread, cake, fruit, nuts, sweets or even money. One theory is that this All Saints’ Day tradition started in Lisbon after the earthquake of 1755, as it was on 1st November of that year that the Great Lisbon Earthquake destroyed the city leaving those who survived desperate for food. The earthquake hit Lisbon at 9.40 in the morning, when people were in church for the All Saints’ Day Mass, and what the earthquake didn’t destroy the subsequent fires started by the church candles did.

108a - Copy

Banks, post offices and other public services are closed on this day (this includes some museums) and public transport runs to a reduced timetable. However, large shopping centres and shops in tourist areas should be open as usual. Churches will be closed to tourists while Mass is taking place.


Festival of Saint John, Porto, 23rd-24th June

Festival of Saint John, Porto, 23rd-24th June

Porto (788)

The Festa de São João (Festival of St John the Baptist) in Porto is not for the faint-hearted. It is loud, brash and slightly insane. Imagine New Year’s Eve after 10 double espressos. The São João celebrations are part of the Popular Saints celebrations that take place in various regions of Portugal in June: namely, the Festival of St Anthony, which is celebrated in Lisbon on 12th-13th June; the Festival of St John, which is celebrated in Porto and Braga on 23rd-24th June; and the Festival of St Peter, which is celebrated in various cities, such as Póvoa de Varzim, Sintra, Montijo and Évora on 28th-29th June. All the festivals have links to pagan summer solstice celebrations and certain customs from pagan times still exist, such as jumping over bonfires and giving friends, family or a girlfriend/boyfriend a plant. In Porto, the Festa de São João also has something unique to Porto, the tradition of hitting people on the head with a martelinho (a toy plastic hammer). Originally people would carry a tall plant called elephant garlic (also known as wild leek), which has a large flower, and hit people with that, but some enterprising businessman in the 1970s came up with the idea of introducing soft, squeaky, plastic hammers for the festival and the idea caught on.

The main celebrations are held on the evening of 23rd June, but São João events start occurring in the city over a month before, including concerts, street entertainment, and events for children. We were lucky enough to be in Porto in the week leading up to the big night and there was a sense of anticipation in the air. On every street there was bunting and other decorations. In shop windows, on café tables, and on market stalls were the ubiquitous manjericos, pots of bush basil with quadras, four-line verses, stuck in them. (The Porto-based newspaper, O Jornal de Notícias, holds an annual quadras-writing competition in June which is very popular and gets around 5000 entries.) Walking around the streets of Porto on our first day we came across a full-size rotating ball of martelinhos in Largo de São Domingos, part art installation, part fairground ride and very popular with young and old alike. One afternoon we came across a group of people in traditional costume who started playing traditional music and dancing on a street corner. The joy of it was they seemed to be performing for their own pleasure, not for applause or for money from the passers-by. We were also lucky enough to see the rusgas (revels), a singing and dancing parade performed by groups from various districts of Porto who compete against each other. They can choose their own theme, which should include references to the traditions of the city and they are judged on music, choreography, costume, props and scenery. As a friend from Porto told me, they are reminiscent of the Lisbon marchas populares, but are a lot less sophisticated. Wandering around the city we also came across what I initially thought was a large-scale nativity scene, but on closer inspection I realised that it was a scene of Porto with its distinctive buildings and small painted figures of people and animals added, including figures of the popular saints (St. John, St. Anthony and St. Peter). These scenes which represent Porto daily life in the past are known as cascatas and the tradition dates back to the nineteenth century when they starting appearing, based on the idea of the Christmas nativity scene but with the saints replacing the Holy Family. I later learnt that there are two figures that appear in most cascatas, which give it a touch of toilet humour: a milkmaid urinating into her milk pail and the ‘cagão’ (‘shitter’) who is a man caught defecating! Nowadays cascatas can be seen in various places around the city during the period of São João, including in the Mercado do Bolhão, and there is a prize for the best one

These small events are like appetizers before the main day, which starts early in the morning of the 23rd with people setting up martelinho stalls all over the city. Often the ‘stall’ is just a sheet on the ground with a random selection of plastic hammers on it. Along with the martelinho stalls are the plethora of Superbock stalls along the riverfront on both sides of the river. This is where everyone will be congregating later in the night to watch the fireworks and they will be in need of liquid refreshment in the form of one of Portugal’s most popular beers, Superbock, who, judging by the number of advertisements around the city, seem to have a monopoly on the event. Also along the riverfront, from lunchtime onwards, is the distinctive smell (and smoke) of sardines being grilled. Added to that are the stalls roasting meat on spits, others selling traditional cakes, biscuits and sweets, and others selling farturas and churros (fried dough snacks), candy floss and popcorn, and we realised that we didn’t need to worry about where to have dinner that evening. All this is accompanied by loud Portuguese party music dedicated to the popular saints. One song in particular, called São João Bonito (‘Lovely Saint John’), sung with gusto by Lenita Gentil, got stuck in my head, with its chorus:
Santo António já se acabou
O São Pedro está-se a acabar
São João, São João, São João
Dá cá um balão para eu brincar!’
(‘Saint Anthony is over
Saint Peter will soon be over
Saint John, Saint John, Saint John,
Give me a Chinese lantern to play with.’)

We discovered that São João is also an excellent day to go shopping, as many shops have a São João sale where everything is discounted. The shops, like everywhere else in Porto on this day, are very busy, but there is a wonderful holiday atmosphere wherever you go.

As complete novices to the São João hammer tradition we were a little unsure of what to do at first, until a little boy of about 6 hit me on the head with a hammer and then pointed to my hammer and then to his head. It seems that if you are hit you should return the hit. Once I’d gained my confidence I was able to hit strangers without waiting for them to hit me first. It was great fun, although Neil was getting a bit worried about my enthusiasm for this. Early in the evening the main people hitting with the hammers seemed to be children and tourists and I was beginning to wonder if the whole thing was a gimmick, but as the sun set the locals of all ages began hitting in earnest and the sound of squeaking filled the streets, along with the sound of whistles, which many of the hammers also contain. As well as the people wielding hammers were people carrying the stalks of elephant garlic, usually sadistic young men or equally sadistic old women, who took pleasure in thrusting the flower into people’s faces. Some women also carry a bunch of sweeter smelling lemon balm or lemon verbena which they push into the faces of passing men. It’s all part of the São João fun.

As evening turned into night the people continued to pour into the riverside area and the sense of expectation continued to rise. It is estimated that over 200,000 people attend the Festa de São João. Around us on the grass where we had chosen to sit to watch the fireworks families and groups of friends had set up picnic rugs and brought out bottles of wine and plastic cups. In the hours leading up to midnight, everywhere we looked were groups of people setting off Chinese lanterns. It seemed a dangerous combination of drunkenness, macho competitiveness, flimsy paper and fire in a very crowded environment. The hope was that the lit lantern would float gracefully up into the sky to join the others, but the reality was that many fell back into the crowd as a burning bundle of paper or even got caught in trees. No harm was done and it all seemed to fit in with the slightly anarchic São João atmosphere.

Finally, at midnight, the highlight of the whole Festa de São João kicked off: the firework display. It started with the opening riff from ‘Thunderstruck’ by AC/DC along with flashing lights on the Dom Luís 1 Bridge and on the words ‘Thunder’ fireworks exploded from the bridge. The rest of the 15-minute firework spectacular was choreographed against other rock standards, with fireworks coming from several boats in the middle of the River Douro as well as from the bridge. We had positioned ourselves on the Vila Nova de Gaia side of the river opposite one of the firework boats and from our position we got a memorable view of the fireworks against the backdrop of historic Porto, in particular the Cathedral and Archbishop’s Palace, the Torre dos Clérigos, São Francisco Church and the Cais da Ribeira. The last few minutes of the firework display was loud and frenetic, which seemed a fitting end to an excellent display, and was to ‘A Minha Casinha’ by Xutos & Pontapés, Portugal’s number one rock band. This track was a perfect segue into the next stage of our planned night, but we all know about the best laid plans of mice and men! Xutos & Pontapés were due to start playing a concert in Avenida dos Aliados in the historic centre of Porto at 1am. This meant that we would have to cross the only footbridge to get to the other side of the river. For safety reasons the police were only letting a certain number of people cross the bridge in one direction at a time. I will gloss over the next hour or so of the night and the drunken crush to get onto the bridge, but by the time we arrived on the Porto side it was nearly 2am and the desire to stand in another mass of people to see Xutos & Pontapés had gone.

Instead, we collapsed into bed at 2am, while outside our hotel window a party was in full swing and at full volume. There was to be no sleep in the city that night.

The following afternoon, once the city had started to come to life again, we joined a large number of people on the bank of the Ribeira to watch the final moments of the Regatta of the Barcos Rabelos. This is an annual event, organised by the Confraria do Vinho do Porto,  in which each of the main port houses races their barco rabelo  (a traditional flat-bottomed boat with a long oar at the stern that used to carry the port barrels from the upper Douro into Porto), from Cabedelo at the mouth of the River Douro to the House of Sandeman near the Dom Luís I Bridge. It seemed a fitting way to end our São João experience.

Bom São João!

Portugal Day, 10th June

Portugal Day, 10th June

Porto (0315a)

Portugal Day or, to give it its full title, Portugal, Camões and the Portuguese Communities Day, is a national holiday celebrated on 10th June and, as its name suggests, is a combined celebration of Portugal and all the Portuguese communities around the world and of Portugal’s most famous poet, Luís Vaz de Camões, who died on 10th June 1580.

Camões, who is known as the Portuguese Shakespeare, was a colourful character if everything that has been written about him is to believed (which it isn’t!). His date of birth is unknown, but is estimated as 1524 and the facts of his life are sketchy, which has resulted in various myths developing about him. He was a member of the lower ranks of the aristocracy and after being exiled from Lisbon joined the army and fought in Morocco, where it is said he lost an eye. A few years later he was sent to India as a soldier to avoid a jail sentence and during this time was shipwrecked, where legend has it that he swam ashore holding the manuscript of his most famous poem, Os Lusíadas (The Lusiads), above the water to save it. Os Lusíadas (published in 1572) is an epic poem which has many layers to it, written with reference to classical epic poems such as The Aeneid and The Odyssey. Its central subject is Vasco da Gama’s voyage to and discovery of India in 1498, resulting in a brief but glorious period where Portugal dominated the sea routes and trading points in the Persian Gulf, Indian Ocean and South China seas. By the time Camões was in India, Portugal’s domination was in decline and it could be argued that Os Lusíadas was partly written to restore national pride.

Each year a city in Portugal is named by the President to be the host city of the official Portugal Day celebrations, which include military displays, political speeches and an awards ceremony at which the President bestows the Honorific Orders of Portugal to Portuguese people who have achieved personal success or have given distinguished service to Portugal. Throughout Portugal there are celebrations which include live music, firework displays and street parties. In some towns and cities the celebrations extend into the ‘Popular Saints’ celebrations: the festival of St Anthony (12th-13th June) in Lisbon, the festival of St John (23rd-24th June) in Porto and Braga, and the festival of St Peter (28-29th June) in various cities, such as Póvoa de Varzim, Sintra, Montijo and Évora. Portugal Day is also celebrated in cities around the world which have large Portuguese expatriate communities, including Toronto (Canada), London (UK), several cities in the USA, Brazil and Macau. In these communities the focus is on all things Portuguese, possibly more so than in Portugal itself, and there are parades, Portuguese folk music and dancing, concerts with popular Portuguese musicians, traditional Portuguese food and other cultural events.

In 2016 the Portuguese host city was Lisbon and the celebrations also extended to Paris.